What's the business model of curation?

The Washington Post | Incisive.nu | Mark Armstrong

Michael Cavna riffs on aggregation: "Are ‘link-bloggers’ journalists?" he asks in a "Meta-Post' published very early Friday. Then he carefully links 50 terms within the post, many to definitions, some to his own post. Cavna frames it as a response to a colleague who asked the question and includes an editor's note just in case you miss the point:

(ED. NOTE: Warning: Every so often, riff-happy journalistic blogs include the faintest whiff of satire.)

But heck yeah, it's a slow Friday morning, so let's give the pot a stir.

Cavna's touched on a meta-conversation that's been taking place in brainy quarters of the blogosphere, following a tweet quoting "sweet Internet hippie" Jonathan Harris, as Erin Kissane calls him, saying "Curation is replacing creation as a mode of self-expression." (Remember the "Curator's Code" dustup of March? It's back on!)

Harris was quoted out of context, Kissane says, and she ponders the backlash against curation that followed: The act of sharing links is less like museum curation than the "casual forms of taste display that we participate in when we get dressed in the morning, create mix tapes, collect art, buy and arrange furniture, collect books or records, and banter with clerks in one of the world’s three remaining video shops."

But few people get paid to dress well or look smart in video shops (if they did, Ian Svenonius would be very rich). The economic activity around Internet content -- mostly advertising -- means creators of original content have a natural beef with curators, or "bowerbirds," which Kissane suggests as an alternative term. But the legal niceties of sharing are pretty fuzzy, she says, and "we should also accept the fact that the ground is unsteady—that whatever model we use to make money from content, right now, may dissolve within years or months as the network evolves."

A few days ago, Longreads founder Mark Armstrong drew a line between the link-blogging Cavna's talking about and modern curation:

Old-tyme curators used to monetize by permalinking their outbound links on a blog, and then dropping in a comments section and a little bit of commentary. When they sold advertising, they justified the existence of their permalinked links by talking about the “added value” that their comments section brought to the conversation. This wasn’t great for publishers when it came to Google search results, because if you searched an original publisher’s headline, you’d see not just the original work, but the links to the work from other aggregators.

That's been replaced, Armstrong argues, by a pack of elite curators who operate on Twitter: Anthony De Rosa, Maria Popova, Kevin Smokler. Among such folks, Armstrong writes, "Consistency is the defining trait that seems to separate 'professional' curation and linkblogging from the occasional 'oh hey look at this.' " There's not much direct economic benefit to such megacuration yet, he writes -- "The people I know who 'curate' are also writers, editors, bloggers and publishers."

In May, a few weeks before she was fired, Ann Friedman talked about the difference between the editing she did for GOOD magazine and the curation she did for her site Lady Journos. (It should not be lost on people who've been following the story of what happened at GOOD that the magazine was at that moment trying to figure out how curation fit in with original content.)

I know the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but being an editor is different than being a curator. For GOOD, I’m interested in pitches that have compelling people and ideas at the core—and a good news peg certainly doesn’t hurt. We look for stories that are solutions-oriented, but not irrationally upbeat, from writers with a strong voice. For LadyJournos, where I’m curating not editing, I’m looking for a balance of reported and essayistic work by up-and-coming women journalists. Often that means combing online-only sources or alt weeklies. I’ll feature the occasional New Yorker piece, but everyone reads the New Yorker, so that’s not super helpful. ... I created the site so that lazy assigning editors would know how to put a steady stream of work by women writers into their regular feeds.

Hey, that seems like a real service! The kind of thing, even, that might help move the conversation about what curators do beyond "us vs. them," or maybe "Are 'link-bloggers journalists?' "

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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